YC-Funded ScreenLeap: Because Screen-Sharing Doesn’t Need To Make You Crazy

With stories of Terminator-esque Google glasses making headlines these days, you’d think a basic task like screen sharing would be something that’d be pretty well solved by now. But while there are many different ways to share your desktop (or some portion thereof) with your friends or coworkers, more often than not the process isn’t something you’d call easy.

It’s bad enough that many people (including me) often find themselves steering their peers around computers the old-fashioned way: voice instructions over the phone (“Okay, now look in the Dock, do you see the Settings button? The one with metal gears, right. Click that…”)

ScreenLeap, a new startup out of the latest Y Combinator batch, wants to make this process a lot less painful, so that next time you’re confronted with an issue that could be better dealt with via screen-share, you actually take advantage of it. And to do that, they’re offering a product that’s about as straightforward as it gets: click a link, and you’re looking at your friend’s screen.

Of course, ScreenLeap is far from the first company that’s looking to take on WebEx and the other well-established screen-sharing platforms — competitors include GoInstant, which debuted at TC Disrupt SF back in September, JoinMe, and even Google+, which offers screensharing as part of its Hangouts feature. So what sets ScreenLeap apart? Co-founder Tuyen Truong says that it’s the only service that uses JavaScript and HTML in its viewer, which means that just about any browser — including those on smartphones — can view a broadcast without having to install any additional software.

Conversely, competitors like JoinMe (which is part of LogMeIn) use a Flash-based viewer, which won’t work on many smartphones (including, famously, any iOS devices), so they require standalone mobile apps. And while GoInstant doesn’t use Flash (in fact, it doesn’t require any downloads), it’ll only let you share a browser screen, and not content from other apps.

From the viewer’s perspective, ScreenLeap works great. You click the link (or enter a short PIN on ScreenLeap’s homepage) and you’re looking at the sharer’s screen within a few seconds. Unfortunately the experience isn’t quite as straightforward for the person who wants to share their screen — they’ll need to download and run ScreenLeap’s Java applet, a process that’s quick and relatively painless, but is a significant hurdle nonetheless (some people are wary of running such applets, especially if it’s from a site they’ve only recently heard about).

The site itself is the epitome of a minimal viable product. It looks pretty generic (to the point that I might initially assume its homepage was an ad of some sort), and from a functionality perspective it’s missing some obvious features, like the ability to create screen-shares that are restricted to certain users.

But the design issue is easily remedied, and the company says user accounts (and permissions) will be coming in the next few weeks. Another obvious omission is audio: at this point ScreenLeap is for visual sharing only. But Truong says the service has found that many people are already having a phone conversation when they launch the service anyway.

At this point ScreenLeap is free, but down the line the company plans to utilize a freemium business model, with certain additional features available for a price. Truong says that ScreenLeap is hoping to appeal both to businesses — who have traditionally been the main users of screensharing software — and consumers, who he believes are an untapped market. He likens the current situation with screensharing to the quick rise of the camera phone, as the ubiquity and ease-of-use of smartphones have led to people snapping photos far more often than they would otherwise.

He’s less certain about what they’ll be screensharing, but expects that users will demonstrate use-cases in the coming months. Personally, I seriously doubt that screensharing will see anything near the boom mobile photos have, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were a more modest uptick as it becomes easier to do.

Finally, one interesting anecdote. ScreenLeap’s four founders are Tuyen Truong, Lawrence Gentilello, Steven Liu, and Allison Huynh, and two of them — Truong and Gentilello — were founders some thirteen years ago of a site at Stanford called Steamtunnels. A site that featured an online version of Stanford’s (print) Facebook, and had aims that were very similar to what Facebook.com eventually became. Alas, Stanford’s faculty wasn’t receptive to the idea. From the Stanford Daily:

As the site’s “About Us” page stated in 1999, “Let’s face it, the Facebook is an integral part of Stanford’s social structure: you poured [sic] over it freshman year getting to know your class, and now it remains a desktop reference more cherished and abused than your Webster’s Dictionary…we put the Facebook online.”

However, only a week after the release of the beta version of the site, the trio said the University pushed for Steamtunnels to shut down, citing potential Honor Code violations and removing Gentilello and Truong from academic advising positions